ASEAN, China agree to start talks on South China Sea code

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the ASEAN-China Summit on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City, Philippines. Composite pool photo

MANILA, Philippines (Update 2, 8:32 p.m.) — The leaders of the 10-nation Southeast Asian bloc and China, currently at a gathering in Manila, have agreed to start the negotiations for the text of a binding document on the South China Sea.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Malacañang announced on Monday that an outcome of the ASEAN-China Summit presided by President Rodrigo Duterte is to commence the crafting of the code of conduct.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: ASEAN Summit in the Philippines

The start of the talks was announced three months after the framework agreement, or outline, on the COC was concluded. The framework reached in August was a notable development in the maritime dispute which involves China and four ASEAN member-states including the Philippines.

The outline, however, was still lacking details and repeated main points in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a non-binding agreement which did not prevent the building of islands and outposts by Beijing in disputed waters.

The phrase "legally binding" was also avoided in the framework, which is supposed to guide further negotiations on the COC.

Ian Storey, a senior fellow at Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, noted that the plan to manage the maritime feud took decades before taking some shape.

"If past is prologue, this (code of conduct) process is likely to be protracted and frustrating, especially for Southeast Asian countries who are keen to have a legally binding, comprehensive and effective COC in place as quickly as possible," Storey wrote in a report released in August.

Possible content of the sea code

Experts like Storey expect the inclusion of a geographical scope of the COC, which was missing in the earlier framework. The scope may determine whether the code will apply to both the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, the latter being areas claimed by Manila.

The COC, to be effective, should also include enforcement measures and arbitration mechanisms should one party accuse another of violating the code, Storey said. But there is reason to be less optimistic.

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From left U.S. President Donald Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, his partner Cielito Avencana and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pose for a photo before the start of the Special Gala Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of ASEAN in Manila, Philippines on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. The gala marks the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. AP/Aaron Favila

"Generally speaking, ASEAN eschews enforcement clauses in its agreements," Storey said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Sunday said talks on the code of conduct would include preservation of marine life, access to fishermen, having less navy vessels and personnel and more coast guard members in the disputed waterway.

On Sunday, United States President Donald Trump offered to mediate in the South China Sea row, citing his experience in negotiations as a businessmen. Leaders of claimant states were careful not to affirm his offer.

Cayetano, the top official after Duterte in charge of the policy of rapprochement with China, said the ASEAN would have to decide on mediation as a group.

China has long dismissed the role of the United States in the South China Sea row, claiming it is an outsider in the region. The US, meanwhile, has maintained a military and diplomatic presence for decades in the Western Pacific and expressed worry over Beijing's threat on freedom of navigation in a major passageway where $3.31 trillion in world trade transits. — Camille Diola

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